As I mentioned a month ago when discussing Odin’s prominence in the Norse pantheon, this blog has been a way for me to work through a few questions I have about Thor, including why he’s survived to be a cultural force, why he was such a big deal to the Vikings, and why him instead of, say, Odin. Or Tyr. Or Freyja. Or Freyr.
After all, as Adam of Bremen reported of the temple at Uppsala, Sweden, while Thor was the central figure among the three gods worshiped in statue form there, Odin and Freyr were on either side of him, major figures well-loved by pilgrims to this likely famous temple. But you’re probably much more familiar with Odin than you are with Freyr. If Freyr was a major god in the Norse pantheon, who was he, why was he so popular, and how is he remembered today?
Like his sister Freyja, Freyr is a fertility god, one of the Vanir who joined the Aesir following the famous first war of the world. Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson describes him in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning thusly: “Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men.” As John Lindow points out, this is the textbook description of a fertility god.
Of the Poetic Edda, only one story deals exclusively with Freyr, called Skirnismal, the sayings of Skirnir, Freyr’s servant. The story tells of how Freyr saw a beautiful giantess from Hliðskjálf, Odin’s high seat atop Asgard, and sent Skirnir to negotiate for her as his bride. She eventually acquiesced, but notably, Freyr gave up his sword, one so incredible that it could fight and win all on its own, the owner needed no skill whatsoever to wield it. This loss is most damning: Freyr is prophesied to face Surtr of Muspellheim at Ragnarok, the powerful enemy of the gods who wields a flaming sword that sparks the destruction of all life in the nine realms (with a few notable exceptions). While we’ve talked about the importance of sacrifice, is this too great a cost? A fertility god seeking a wife seems reasonable, but at the expense of everything, everywhere?
Perhaps there’s more to Freyr than this.
Grimnismal notes that Freyr was the lord of Alfheim, home of the elves, and an interesting association on many levels. No other land is given to a god to rule in this way, though Thor is the protector of Midgard, the land of humans. Why might any god, and Freyr in particular, have such a close association with Alfheim, which we generally associated with the elves, who are themselves a complicated species, possibly embodying land spirits or parts of the spirits of ancestors (or both)?
Perhaps one way to see how important Freyr was from a mythological perspective is through Loki’s eyes: in Skáldskaparmál, after Loki cut off Thor’s wife Sif’s hair and faced Thor’s wrath, he promised gifts to the gods in addition to getting a new head of hair for Sif. From one set of dwarf smiths he acquired Odin’s famous spear Gungnir, the best of all boats Skíðblaðnir for Freyr, and Sif’s hair. But he takes his promise one step further and challenges another set of dwarf smiths to create even finer gifts, and from them he acquires Odin’s magical ring Draupnir, which produces 8 identical golden rings every 9 nights, the boar Gullinborsti with shining golden bristles for Freyr, and the magic hammer Mjolnir for Thor.
That’s two gifts for Odin, two for Freyr, and if you count the replacement of Sif’s hair as a gift for Thor, two gifts for Thor. Or count Mjolnir twice, it’s awesome. The point is, Loki esteemed Freyr equal to Odin and Thor at this point, so perhaps we should as well.
But this story has additional value for us, because Skíðblaðnir and Gullinborsti can give us some insight into Freyr’s role as a god.
Skíðblaðnir was called the best of all boats, and one of its properties was that it could be folded up like cloth or paper and put in one’s pocket until it was needed again. What an incredible ship! Add to this the fact that it probably wasn’t intended that we understand Skíðblaðnir as a ship that sailed seas. After all, we’re all familiar with the Viking funeral custom of sending notable figures to the afterlife on a flaming ship set adrift on the sea. Other, more mundane graves involved rocks set in the shape of a ship as grave markers. And it’s most likely that Skíðblaðnir is not so much the name of a ship that Freyr drove, but rather as a ship associated with Freyr used in fertility rituals. Snorri tries to describe it as a massive warship, but since Freyr was more often associated with peace than war, the fertility explanation seems more likely.
And then there’s Gullinborsti. How do dwarves make a boar, exactly? I mean, even a golden boar seems like a stretch, right, since this one walks and pulls chariots and stuff? The most likely explanation is that what Snorri’s talking about here isn’t the living boar Gullinborsti mentioned in other stories, but rather a golden helmet crested with a boar figure with shining golden bristles. There’s actually extensive reference to this in the historical record, including finds of boar-helmets in Denmark and England, and the famous poem Beowulf extensively remarks upon gleaming boar helmets.
Which, interestingly, might detach Freyr from the alleged Viking fetishization of violence. From his role as a fertility god, both agricultural and sexual, to giving up his sword in the quest of a woman, to his symbol being used for helmets, defensive rather than offensive weapons, Freyr may be a candidate for a god of peace among the Aesir and Vanir.
There’s more of interest where Gullinborsti is concerned, though. As Freyr’s chief symbol, he becomes famous as Freyr’s sacrificial animal. Boars are of course closely related to pigs, and in fact many species of pig in Scandinavia and Northern Europe are closely related to what we think of as boars today. Therefore, boar sacrifices dedicated to Freyr during festivals hoping for successful growing seasons and harvests can be seen to have become large dinners centered around ham or pork, and there are Christmas ham and New Year’s pork traditions that live on today throughout Europe and North America. In particular, New Year’s traditions calling for pork that derive from Germanic cultures that believe pork to be lucky or bringing prosperity are almost certainly attributable to ancient associations with Freyr.
So you likely know Freyr better than you realized.
And one last thing – the word “Freyr” means “lord” in Old Norse, and might be thought of as a title rather than a proper name. Freyr and Freyja were the Lord and Lady of their people. Freyr’s proper name might be treated as Yngvi, then, which is what he is called in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, the story of the line of kings who descend from Yngvi. This story eventually finds its way down to the kings who were historical figures in Sweden during Snorri’s time. This is part of the story where Snorri is trying, from his Christian perspective, to explain how the Old Gods are not gods, but rather men of great importance who have a mundane (rather than sacred) connection to the present day. But it still is quite relevant that an entire line of kings traces themselves not to Odin, allegedly Freyr’s grandfather, but rather to Freyr, and see him as the key figure for their successful rule.
And this is one of several key takeaways from this account. In Sweden, Freyr Yngvi is venerated for many fine qualities, and the success of his kingdom. Odin is better loved in Iceland, a more literate society. Thor is beloved in various places facing hostile Christian influence, and by the common man hoping their god might protect them from a threat.
Freyr was more important in one geographic area, and undoubtedly to many farmers. Odin was more important in another, but lost favor when he lost the sovereign class. And Thor and his furious temper lasted longer for a variety of reasons. But even so, it’s still a complex story that bears no one, easy answer, and there are place names in parts of Europe that show Freyr to be much-loved to this day.
Because it’s also worth noting that Thor’s prominence is relative to the observer: he is prominent to me, sitting in the United States, having absorbed most knowledge before this project through popular culture. Perhaps the fact that Thor seems more popular to me says something about me and about the things that the people of the United States value. Which might explain why Freyr has barely appeared in the Thor comics produced in the United States. But it’s a complex issue. I’ve still got a long way to go.